Everything Is Obvious

  • by Duncan J. Watts
  • Narrated by Duncan J. Watts
  • 8 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Why did Facebook succeed when other social-networking sites failed? Did the surge in Iraq really lead to less violence? How much can CEO’s impact the performance of their companies? And does higher pay incentivize people to work hard?
If you think the answers to these questions are a matter of common sense, think again. As sociologist and network science pioneer Duncan Watts explains in this provocative book, the explanations that we give for the outcomes that we observe in life - explanation that seem obvious once we know the answer - are less useful than they seem.
Drawing on the latest scientific research, along with a wealth of historical and contemporary examples, Watts shows how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.
It seems obvious, for example, that people respond to incentives; yet policy makers and managers alike frequently fail to anticipate how people will respond to the incentives they create. Social trends often seem to have been driven by certain influential people; yet marketers have been unable to identify these “influencers” in advance. And although successful products or companies always seem in retrospect to have succeeded because of their unique qualities, predicting the qualities of the next hit product or hot company is notoriously difficult, even for experienced professionals.
Only by understanding how and when common sense fails, Watts argues, can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present - an argument that has important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.


What the Critics Say

"Every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. This is one of those books. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us." (Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and New York Times best-selling author of Predictably Irrational)
“A deep and insightful book that is a joy to read. There are new ideas on every page, and none of them is obvious!” (Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness)
"A brilliant account of why, for every hard question, there’s a common sense answer that’s simple, seductive, and spectacularly wrong. If you are suspicious of pop sociology, rogue economics, and didactic history - or, more importantly, if you aren’t! - Everything is Obvious is necessary reading. It will literally change the way you think." (Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology. New York University)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Thought provoking

Duncan Watts is a physics professor turned sociology professor. I was intrigued by the idea of someone who could bring 'hard science' approaches to sociology. You might want to read the last chapter first as he summarizes the differences between sociological and hard science research. However, this is done in a most positive way - he points out that sociologic studies are important and that there are means and methods that can be used and developed to achieve better understanding into human behavior.

His insights are very thought provoking. He points out that many aspects of sociological studies that are generally not considered. For instance, we have a way of explaining history after we already know the outcome. Was the surge in Iraq really responsible for turning around that conflict or was it some combination of other factors such as rebuidling infrastructure, training new police, training new Iraqi military, more experienced government etc. There's really no way to tell because we can't run an 'experiment' to see what would happen if there was no surge...

Sociologist often fall upon what they term common sense explanations....but these explanations only work well when you already know the answer.

This is a great addition to the series Outliers and Predictably Irrational. I look forward to the contributions of his approach into important social issues.

I would have given it 5 stars, but I found it unfortunate that he often did not credit some of the work he cited. I understand that this is not a scientific paper but some of the more important and lengthy examples he cites should have been credited.
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- Stephen

Yes Sociology

It's about time a sociologist wrote an amazing and accessible book for a non-specialist audience. Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts is that amazing book.

For too long, the economists, psychologists, historians and evolutionary psychologists have owned the popular non-fiction category. No longer. Sociology is back!

And what a sociologist. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the author:
"Duncan J. Watts (born 1971) is an Australian researcher and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. He is also an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he headed the Collective Dynamics Group."
Or his list of publications from his Yahoo Research page - (which brings up 1,734 results).

The dude is barely 40.

Now I'm biased to be psyched about a great popular non-fiction book written by a sociologist, as I am a (somewhat lapsed) member of this tribe. For a while now, it seems as if the evolutionary psychologists, the biologists, the behavioral economists, and economic historians have been debating, discussing and writing about the most interesting ideas, theories and trends.

Sure, we have Sudhir Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets) but nobody like Dan Ariely, Richard Florida, Steven Levitt, Tyler Cowen, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Leonard Mlodinow, Sam Gosling, Steven Pinker, Ian Ayres, or Daniel Gilbert. (Wow…all males in this list - taken from my Audible list of academics who have written popular books that I really liked. Not sure if I like what this says about my own lack of diversity in what I read).

The big idea underpinning "Everything is Obvious" is that the massive amounts of data created by Web 2.0 search, networking and communications platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Facebook and Yahoo gives social scientists the tools to test the relationship between individual and group preferences, actions and beliefs. According to Watts, sociology is due for a renaissance, as the Web can be utilized as a tool to run social experiments that were previously not possible with traditional survey techniques.

Watts has run a number of these experiments, which have the common theme of calling into question commonly held beliefs about the origins and catalysts for a range of trends and outcomes. For instance, Watts takes on Malcolm Gladwell's conclusions in The Tipping Point that a small group of "influentials" can start and drive consumer trends.
Every Sociology 101 course (a class I've taught more times than I care to remember) should assign "Everything is Obvious". Watts provides a nice synthesis of the main tenets of sociology (from Durkheim to Parsons), moving fluently between the worlds of sociological theory, technology, and popular culture. We might find that the number of sociology majors will increase if we let this book lose in our courses.

What other companies have a resident sociologist? My respect for Yahoo has dramatically increased.
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- Joshua Kim

Book Details

  • Release Date: 03-29-2011
  • Publisher: Random House Audio